No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.
The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.
Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.
The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.
Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.
Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.
It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.
The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.
In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?
Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.
Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.
Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.
From the Public Policy Institute of Caliornia (Lori Pottinger):
In 2019, California’s use of the Colorado River—a major water source for Southern California’s cities and farms—dropped to the lowest level in decades. We asked John Fleck—director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center research network—about the ongoing changes in California’s use of this water, and what it means going forward. He is the author, with Eric Kuhn, of the new book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River Basin.
PPIC: What are the main reasons Californians are using less Colorado River water?
JOHN FLECK: The biggest reason for the recent drop is that Metropolitan Water District (MWD)—the state’s biggest urban user of the river—didn’t need to take as much water in 2019. But this decline also reflects a longer term trend. Prior to the early 2000s, MWD generally took the maximum it could from the Colorado River, usually more than a million acre-feet per year. In recent decades, it has substantially reduced its dependence on the Colorado, only taking a full supply in years of State Water Project shortage. Water conservation has been an enormous success in Southern California. There was a lot of progress in conservation during the latest drought, and even after it ended. We’re seeing a lot more effective use of water in the basin, with a growing emphasis on groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, and reuse efforts. The excellent snowpack in the Sierra in 2019 meant the agency got a good water allocation from the State Water Project, meaning it needed less from the Colorado.
The other part of this story is the conservation success in the Imperial Irrigation District (IID)—the largest user of Colorado River water in the entire basin. On-farm water conservation was part of transfer agreements with Southern California’s urban water suppliers. IID is now using 600 thousand fewer acre-feet per year than before those transfers took place. The agricultural community took cuts and was compensated for them. Farmers have adapted well: revenue has held up even as they’re irrigating less land. What we’ve seen is an increase in acreage in high-dollar crops like winter lettuce and vegetables, and a reduction in alfalfa and forage crops, which bring in less revenue per unit of water and area of land.
PPIC: Do you expect similar drops in coming years in California or the six other basin states?
JF: We’re going to have ups and downs—especially because MWD use of Colorado River water tends to go up when its supplies from the Sierra are low. But California has really demonstrated that it needs less Colorado River water. It’s taken awhile, but it’s been a really successful adaptation. Scarcity is the norm now in the basin, so the fact that California can succeed in using less imported water is incredibly important. It shows how we can find opportunities for more flexible problem-solving going forward.
We’re seeing similar things going on across the basin. California isn’t giving up water so others can use more. Nevada is using substantially less than they used to—their use peaked in the early 2000s and has dropped since then. Arizona’s use is down, too. And we’re seeing really flat to declining use in all the other basin states. So the notion that economic and population growth means an increase in water use just isn’t the case in the basin.
PPIC: What does this change mean for efforts to bring the basin into balance?
JF: Because we made mistakes over a century ago in allocating more water than the river can provide, these successes are important, but not enough. We’ll need to see more reductions, especially in the lower basin states.
The next steps require renegotiating the rules that govern the basin’s water allocation to solve the basin’s problems. The Bureau of Reclamation is spending 2020 reviewing how the current rules are working, with the expectation that negotiations on new rules will begin soon after that review is complete. There will be a lot of give and take in how that will play out, and we have to let that happen. Once farmers and communities have a clear idea on how much water they will get, they’re pretty good at figuring out what steps are needed to work within those limits. Various options that might come into play include compensating farmers to use less water, additional conservation, and more expensive options like increasing the use of recycled water and building desalination plants. The negotiations will be hard, but the successes we’ve seen in California and elsewhere around the Colorado River Basin suggest that we have the tools needed to respond to the challenges to come.
It’s a sobering prospect for those of us who call the West home – especially at a moment when the coronavirus is underscoring just how essential a healthy and available water supply is to public health.
The findings underscore the urgent necessity of continued efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and work together to make progress for the environment.
The study’s release coincides with the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Drought Contingency Plan. It was about a year ago that leaders from the seven states of the Colorado River Basin – as well as leaders from the U.S. and Mexico – agreed to one of the largest voluntary water conservation plans in history to respond to the ongoing drought.
Reaching the agreement to protect the water supplies for roughly one in eight Americans was a long and complex process, and tribal leaders and environmental advocates played an integral role. Both of our organizations are proud to have contributed to this effort.
Tribes have rights to 20% of this water
There are 29 federally recognized tribes across the Colorado River Basin. Together, these tribes have water rights to roughly 20% of the water that flows through the river annually. In Arizona, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) and the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) were critical partners in making the Drought Contingency Plan possible.
For CRIT, this was a choice that reflects deeply rooted values, including the spiritual and cultural significance of rivers and wildlife. Supporting water conservation also puts a clear value on basic human needs that are important to us all.
Regardless of individual reasons for supporting water conservation that brought such a wide group of interests together, it is now more evident than at any other time in our lives how we are all connected to each other, and to our natural resources. And with that in mind, there is great work yet to be done to make sure that all water users are truly part of a more sustainable future.
Tribal nations have historically been left out of planning and negotiations that develop river management across the Colorado River Basin. Meaningful tribal inclusion going forward will not be an easy task.
It requires leadership from all involved to authentically understand each other’s interests and responsibilities. It requires sharing expertise to build tribal capacity so that we are in equitable positions to negotiate. Diversity, equity and inclusion enhance the process for all of us.
All communities across the Colorado River Basin deserve to be part of the discussions as decisions about managing the river are made. All water users, water managers and elected leaders need to work together to address the inequities in water availability in the basin.
That process started last year in Arizona with the CRIT and GRIC participation in the drought plan, and it needs to continue as plans develop for our water future. We need each other if we are going to protect and save the life of the Colorado River that supports us all.
In this moment of such dire need, and in the face of one of the most severe droughts in over a century, it is time for each of us to recommit to what connects all of us – and what it means to conserve and live in a responsible, sustainable way, together.
Dennis Patch is chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation in Arizona and California is bisected by the Colorado River. Ted Kowalski leads the Colorado River Initiative for the Walton Family Foundation, which encourages water conservation and a healthy, sustainable Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado River begins high in the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado at Poudre Pass before flowing south and then west into Grand County, through the town of Kremmling, a small ranching community of just over 1,400 people.
It’s a hard place to have a ranch. The soils are sandy, and at over 7,000 feet, the growing season is short. But the real challenge is water. Powerful Front Range water utilities such as Denver Water own many of the senior water rights in Grand County, leaving many ranchers fearful of the day when the city might need the water they rely on to irrigate.
Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher and fly-fishing guide who raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling, knows firsthand the hardship caused by water shortages. In 2000, his father sold the family’s original homestead on the Front Range and bought two new ranches in Grand County, hoping for a fresh start away from the rapidly encroaching city. One of the property’s water rights was owned by Denver Water, which had agreed to lease it for 50 years — so long as the city could use the water in times of extreme drought. That time came just two years after Bruchez’s father bought the ranch, in 2002, leaving the family without enough water to irrigate. Forced to fallow half their fields, Bruchez’s family struggled to pay their mortgage.
The crisis prompted Bruchez to get involved in state-level water negotiations so he could help figure out creative solutions to the kind of problem his family faced. In 2015, he became an agriculture representative to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, where the concept of “demand management” began dominating conversations last year. At the heart of a demand-management program is paying irrigators on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis to leave more water in the river in an effort to bolster levels in Lake Powell and help the state meet its downstream obligations.
Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the three other Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) must send 7.5 million acre-feet to Lake Powell every year for the three Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada). Failing to meet those obligations triggers a so-called “compact call,” where junior water rights holders throughout the Upper Basin would see their water cut off — a disastrous situation that water managers are desperate to avoid.
To address that threat, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the agency charged with managing the state’s water resources, voted last year to begin studying the feasibility of a demand-management program. But there was a problem: Although the fields in a potential demand-management program would be at various altitudes, scientists do not have much data on the impacts of reducing irrigation water on higher elevation pastures. Bruchez saw an opportunity to help those efforts by recruiting his ranching neighbors to participate in a study that would help fill the current data gap on fields such as those in the Kremmling area.
“This is our opportunity to participate in the process,” Bruchez told them. Ranchers were receptive, but they had questions. A lot of questions. How, for instance, would they get enough hay to feed their cattle if some of their fields were out of production? How would one rancher’s curtailing of water on his fields affect his neighbors’ fields? How much water savings do you achieve and what happens to the lands themselves? How quickly do they recover?
Bruchez knew that the answers to those questions could be crucial determiners for Colorado’s demand-management investigation.
“If we do this project, it could equally indicate the lack of viability or it could indicate that this is a really great opportunity,” he said. “But at least we’ll be making those decisions based on science rather than emotions or policy without real data.”
Bruchez, 36, is somewhat of a guru for the ranching community in the Colorado water world, participating in numerous river-restoration projects and various water focus groups in addition to his role on the Colorado Basin Roundtable, one of nine groups representing each of Colorado’s main river basins (as well as the Denver area) composed of various stakeholders working to address the state’s water challenges.
In 2012, he helped create a partnership among local ranchers called the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) to secure grant funding for river-restoration initiatives such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River.
Late last fall, Bruchez began discussing the idea of a water-saving study with the ILVK, and by February he had five volunteers (with the potential for two more). Among them, they had 1,200 to 1,500 acres ranging in elevation from 7,300 to 8,300 feet in which to study the ecological and economic impacts of full- and partial-season irrigation curtailment on hayfields.
In March, the CWCB awarded Bruchez’s project a $500,000 grant under its Alternative Agriculture Water Transfer Method program, which supports proposals that offer ways to boost water supplies without relying on traditional “buy and dry” transactions. The remaining funding for the $900,000 project is coming from American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and private donors.
Some of the ranchers will irrigate their participating fields as normal for half a season — until June 15 — before cutting off their water, while others will not irrigate at all. For the split-season irrigation, ranchers will be compensated at $225 per acre with an additional $56 per acre of risk-mitigation payment (to pay for general upkeep and other unanticipated damages that might result from the lack of irrigation). For full-season curtailment, ranchers will receive $414 per acre with an additional $207 per acre for risk mitigation.
For Bruchez’s neighbors such as Bill and Wendy Thompson, the study is an opportunity not only to help the state potentially avoid a major water crisis but to answer some of their own questions. The Thompsons ranch on 400 acres along the Colorado River a mile south of Kremmling with views of Longs Peak and Gore Range. After Bruchez broached the idea of studying the potential for an irrigation-reduction program on high-altitude pastures, the Thompsons volunteer two of their fields — one for a partial-season curtailment and the other as a “control” field, which they will irrigate as normal.
“We don’t know enough about our own consumptive use on these meadows,” Bill Thompson said. Maybe we’ll discover a new species of grass that’ll actually grow in this sandy soil.”
Conway Farrell, another Kremmling rancher whom Bruchez recruited, hopes the study will help yield the scientific research that water managers can use to create a demand-management program that will help agriculture in the long run.
“Everyone’s been talking about this for years,” Farrell said. “It’s time to finally do something.”
Colorado State University researchers led by Dr. Perry Cabot, a water-resources specialist, will use remote sensing to determine how much water plants consume on the ranchers’ pastures and how much they save by not irrigating on select fields. The researchers will also look at the recovery patterns and risks associated with subjecting pastures to different levels of irrigation curtailment.
Joe Brummer, the forage specialist for the state of Colorado and an associate professor at CSU, has conducted one of the few studies into the effects of partial- and full-season hay fallowing at different elevations in western Colorado. His findings, though limited in scope, are encouraging: While there are short-term losses, the fields recovered after a few seasons to within 10% of full production.
“Plants are resilient,” he said.
As Bruchez ironed out the details of his initiative last winter with ranchers, researchers and the other NGO partners, he had to tread carefully.
Amy Ostdiek, the deputy chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section, emphasized that since the state is still in the initial stages of studying the feasibility of demand management, it’s too early to know how Bruchez’s initiative will play into those efforts. The other three Upper Basin states are in the middle of similar processes as part of the Drought Contingency Planning agreement that all seven Colorado River basin states signed last May.
“We can’t do anything until all Upper Basin states agree that demand management is feasible in their states,” Ostdiek said. “If other states agree that it is, then we get to the hard work of what that program would look like.”
Almost two decades ago, Bruchez’s family overcame their own water crisis by negotiating with Denver Water so that both the utility and Grand County’s agriculture community and environment could get the water they all need. For Bruchez, the experience was a lesson in the value of simple awareness and better management when it comes to solving seemingly intractable water issues.
Speaking from his ranch a couple of weeks ago via Zoom — an online video conferencing app used due to restrictions on in-person meetings because of the COVID-19 crisis — Bruchez felt more than ever the need to be proactive about a future water crisis.
“If people in Phoenix or Denver can’t drink water, what’re we going to do about it?” Bruchez said, adding that it’s no secret that agricultural water rights would be in jeopardy. “Trying to get ahead of this is super important.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders. This story ran in the April 15 edition of SkyHi News.
If Colorado decides to join in an historic Colorado River drought protection effort, one that would require setting aside as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, can it find a fair way to get the work done? A way that won’t cripple farm economies and one which ensures Front Range cities bear their share of the burden?
That was one of the key questions more than 100 people, citizen volunteers and water managers, addressed last week as part of a two-day meeting in Denver to continue exploring whether the state should participate in the effort. The Lake Powell drought pool, authorized by Congress last year as part of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks.
But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million people use in a year at home, is a complex proposition. The voluntary program, if created, would pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same. The concept has been dubbed “demand management.”
Among the key issues discussed at the joint Interbasin Compact Committee and demand management work group confab last week is whether there is a truly equitable way to fill the drought pool that doesn’t disproportionately impact one region or sector in the state.
In addition, a majority of participants reported that they wanted any drought plan to include environmental analyses to ensure whichever methods are selected don’t harm streams and river habitat.
Some pointed to the need to identify “tipping points” when reduced water use would create harmful economic effects in any given community, and suggested that demand management be viewed as a shared responsibility.
Flipping the narrative of shared responsibility, participants said sharing benefits equally was important as well. They want to ensure that people selected to participate would do so on a time-limited basis, so that a wide variety of entities have the opportunity to benefit from the payments coming from what is likely to be a multi-million-dollar program.
“People are starting to get it,” said Russell George. George is a former lawmaker who helped create the 15-year-old public collaborative program which facilitates and helps negotiate issues that arise among Colorado’s eight major river basins and metro area via basin roundtables. He chairs the Interbasin Compact Committee, composed of delegates from those roundtables.
“It’s understood that we have to be fair about this and we have to share [the burden] or it won’t work. I think we’re making great progress,” George said.
The Colorado River is a major source of the state’s water, with all Western Slope and roughly half of Front Range water supplies derived from its flows.
But growing populations, chronic drought and climate change pose sharp risks to the river’s ability to sustain all who depend on it. The concept behind the drought pool is to help reduce the threat of future mandatory cutbacks to Colorado water users under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The public demand management study process, facilitated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has caused concern among different user groups, including farmers. Because growers consume so much of the state’s water, they worry that they are the biggest target for water use reductions, which could directly harm their livelihoods if the program isn’t implemented carefully and on a temporary basis.
In early 2019 the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin—agreed for the first time to a series of steps, known as the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, to help stave off a crisis on the river.
And while Lower Basin states have already begun cutting back water use in order to store more in Lake Mead, the four Upper Basin states are still studying how best to participate to shore up Lake Powell. For the drought pool program to move forward, all four states would need to agree and contribute to the pool. George pointed to Colorado as a leader among the four states, saying it would likely be responsible for contributing as much as 250,000 acre-feet to the pool.
“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our work group members,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell in a statement. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”
The eight major volunteer work groups, addressing such topics as the law, the environment, agriculture and water administration, will continue meeting throughout the year, with a mid-point report based on their findings to date due out sometime this summer.
Travis Smith, a former CWCB board member from Del Norte who is now participating on the agriculture work group, said he is hopeful that the work groups will be able to come up with a plan the public will endorse. Any final plan will likely have to be approved by Colorado lawmakers.
“Coming together to address Colorado’s water future is something we’ve been practicing through the [nine river basin roundtables] for years. Will we get there? Absolutely,” Smith said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
FromThe High Country News [March 10, 2020]: (Anna V. Smith):
The Colorado River Basin is the setting for some of the most drawn-out and complex water issues in the Western U.S. In 2019, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — a water-conservation agreement between states, tribal nations and the federal government for the basin, now in its 20th year of drought — passed Congress. This year, it goes into effect.
2020 will also see the start of the renegotiation of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The guidelines, which regulate the flow of water to users, were created in 2007 without tribal consultation and are set to expire in 2026. The 29 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins hold some of the river’s most senior water rights and control around 20% of its annual flow. But the tribes have often been excluded from water policymaking; around a dozen have yet to quantify their water rights, while others have yet to make full use of them. Most of the tribal nations anticipate fully developing their established water rights by 2040 — whether for agriculture, development, leasing or other uses. Drought and climate change are still causing shortages and uncertainty, however. Already, the Colorado River has dropped by about 20%; by the end of this century, it could drop by more than half.
High Country News spoke with Daryl Vigil (Jicarilla Apache, Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo), water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Vigil, the interim executive director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, helped co-facilitate the Water and Tribes Initiative, coalitions focused on getting increased tribal participation on Colorado River discussions. Those efforts are critical, Vigil says, “because left to the states and the federal government, they’ve already proven that they will leave us out every time.”
HCN and Vigil spoke about “the law of the river” — the colloquial term for the roughly 100 years of court cases, treaties, agreements and water settlements that govern the Colorado — as well as tribal consultation and climate change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
High Country News: Sometimes it can be hard to really understand the core value of water, because it gets so caught up in things like policies and laws and bureaucratic language. Could you boil it down a bit and explain, at the core, what’s so important about this?
Daryl Vigil: Through the Water and Tribes Initiative (in 2018), we did over a hundred interviews of all the major stakeholders in the basin: states, water providers, tribes, NGOs, conservation groups. And it was pretty amazing, to find out that when you talk to all these folks, almost universally they’re all committed; they have a personal relationship to the river as a living entity that needs to be sustained. And so there’s two different mindsets looking at ’07 guidelines and some of the policy that’s been created around the river. One really looks at the Colorado River as a plumbing system, getting water to people who need it, versus the other end of the spectrum — when you start to look at tribes and others who have similar values, who look at it as a living entity, who look at it as an entity that provides life. And so we started to try to articulate traditional, cultural values and integrate that into current policy so that people can understand. Because we know most people want to see a healthy, sustainable Colorado River, but they also have their constituencies that they protect. And so, how is it that we bridge that divide? Because people really do care about the basin, and they really do want healthy environments and healthy ecosystems. And so that’s proven part of the conversation that we were having — that the next set of guidelines absolutely needs to be able to capture not only the water-delivery issues that already are at the forefront, but really start to address the cultural, environmental, traditional values of the Colorado River and integrate that into the next set of planning. Because if we don’t, this system cannot be sustained.
HCN: How does climate change figure into the discussion?
DV: We’re already seeing the impacts. And I think that’s something that absolutely has to be considered in the planning of the future, because right now — with 41 million people in the basin — as of 2010, the imbalance between supply and demand is already a million acre-feet. It’s projected, according to the basin study, to be 3 million acre-feet by 2060. We continue to act surprised when something new comes about in terms of a fire or a flood or an incredible drought. We’re making an impact on this planet, and it’s not a good one. That’s where, with the Ten Tribes Partnership, (we’re) really trying to make sure that we integrate those traditional, cultural values and spiritual values that the tribes have for the river as we move forward. Because if we’re not going to address it, it looks pretty catastrophic to us. And so I think, when we start talking about climate change, absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into nature, rather than nature fitting into us.
HCN: These kinds of discussions, compromises and negotiations can often, especially around water in the West, go on for decades. I’m curious what gives you momentum to keep working at it and putting so much energy into it.
DV: A few different things. You know, those hundred-plus interviews that we did, we got to know people on a real personal basis. We got to know who they are and their commitment — many of these people have had decades working in the Colorado River Basin and doing the best that they could, given the structure. And everybody understands and agrees that the current system is not sustainable, and it doesn’t work; it’s not inclusive of the voices that need to be included into this process. And so that gives me great hope. And then you see things like the pulse flow, where they got water all the way to the Sea of Cortez. And to look at the faces of those Mexican kids who had never seen water in the Colorado River in their whole life come out, and just the wonder and the magic in their eyes of seeing what water does.
And then we just recently had our second basin-wide workshop and gathering up in Phoenix. We had a hundred-plus of the major stakeholders: states, feds, water providers, tribes and four tribal chairman present at this particular meeting, which is just huge, a bunch of people all in this room all talking about their joint commitment to the river. It’s moving to me because, I mean, I think that’s what it’s going to take.
HCN: Every tribal nation is different, but how might a tribal nation view water similarly or differently than a city or a state or the federal government in terms of water and management?
DV: That’s the thing that we’re really trying to create awareness of. Because in the Colorado River Basin alone, you have 29 distinct sovereign entities — geographically, culturally, languages, and mindsets and traditions and culture in terms of how they think about the river. A lot of it’s really about the same, but in terms of the reverence and the spiritual connection that most tribes have, they look at it in different ways. For instance, invasive species of fish: You get tribes who are really aggressive about wanting to remove them because they’re not part of the natural environment that was always there. Then you get other tribes who are just like, eh, who cares and it’s not on their radar. And that’s why it’s important that a conversation about the next set of guidelines for the Colorado River has to include all 29 tribes — in terms of at least the opportunity to participate and at least having the information to determine whether they want to or not.
HCN: What are some big things that you would like people to better understand about the discussions around water in the Colorado River Basin?
DV: I would like them to understand, from a tribal perspective, the incredible role that tribal water already plays in the basin. The other thing I would like people to understand is that this current law of the river is not sustainable. At some point in time there’s collapse. And I think if we don’t address it quickly, that collapse could happen sooner than later. And I really would like to have them understand that the way that the law of the river is structured — upper, lower basins, and how they’re managed differently, and how there’s different requirements and how states are engaged — it’s really complex and doesn’t make any sense, and, ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to get us where the broader consensus wants us to go in terms of a healthy, sustainable river, and still provide water to all living creatures and plants in the basin.
HCN: Specifically, what is it that tribal nations are bringing to the conversation that was lacking in the 2007 agreements?
DV: I think absolutely a point of view about the sacredness of the river that most people really do share, whether they’re tribal or not. And then the other thing is the unique role that tribes are going to continue to play in the West — the large land areas and our resource development and how we move forward. It creates this mindset, in my mind, of building a pathway of who we want to be in the future. But a huge thing, too, is tribes bring certainty to the table. You know, it’s like, wow, what if we negotiated together about being able to move water where it needs to move, and work from a standpoint of collaboration and need rather than protect, defend and win, lose.
HCN: That’s a good point. Because that’s how water is so often talked about, as somebody versus somebody.
DV: And I think that’s what the law of the river does. It’s contentious, and it automatically puts you in a position to protect and defend. And if that’s the foundation we’re operating from, what does that get us? It’s just going to get us this recurring, vicious cycle that we’ve been stuck in. The work that we’re doing at the partnership and Water and Tribes Initiative hopefully has broader implications in terms of tribal sovereignty, and looking at tribal sovereignty from the standpoint of an opportunity to create your future.
Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. Follow @annavtoriasmith.